How to Spot a Liar (DE Coast Press)

People often ask me if clients sometimes lie to their therapists. Though it seems kind of self-defeating — considering they’re paying for the sessions — I’ll admit that I’ve gotten pretty good at figuring out when somebody’s not telling the truth.

Most research on lying focuses on external behaviors such as blinking, stuttering, and evasive body language. There may be merit to these studies, but other explanations are possible. For example, a person on television may blink excessively because of the bright lights. People sometimes stutter because they’re confused. People might not make eye contact because they’re insecure or because they don’t like you. Strictly behavioral theories that attempt to identify liars focus on the body, but they disregard the thinking behind the dishonest behaviors.

To predict whether a person might lie, you need to examine what he says, thinks, and feels in order to uncover his underlying beliefs. For example, “It’s OK to lie when it spares somebody else’s feelings”. (No, it’s not. It just delays the inevitable, and just makes the liar feel virtuous.) Or, “It’s OK to lie if it works, and if I fool everybody”. (Are you SURE you fooled everybody?) Another convenient one is, “It’s OK to lie if it’s nobody else’s business”. (Then why bother saying anything?) And, of course, the old standby: “It’s OK to lie for a higher, more noble purpose”. (Oops … there’s that virtuous baloney again!)

If psychotherapists are experts at anything, it’s at listening to rationalizations – especially about lying. If you come right out and ask somebody if they believe in these rationalizations, most often they’ll say no. But human beings have free will and can reject anything they claim to be a moral principle.

If someone agrees with rationalizations like the ones above, consider yourself forewarned! Such a person might lie to you at any time. If you don’t want a spouse who cheats, or a business partner who steals, then spend some time getting to know how he or she thinks. This may sound judgmental, but it’s nothing more than living your life with 20/20 moral vision. And the inescapable fact remains: You’ll never have the security of an honest relationship with somebody who believes that lying for “certain” reasons is OK.

Actually, many people don’t feel good about lying to others, and do so only in situations where they feel justified in doing so. But most people lie to themselves all the time. They’re dishonest about their motives or intentions, or they refuse to consider inconvenient facts that might discourage a course of action they want to take (ahh, the power of rationalization). “I can afford that car. No need to run the numbers.” Or, “Sure, my husband hits me once in awhile. But deep down he loves me.” Or, “I don’t have to worry about finding a job. I’ll just quit my current job first.” We human beings are more intelligent than we give ourselves credit for, and we’re far more dishonest with ourselves than we’ll ever admit.

Sometimes people feel cheated because they trusted another’s judgment. “I shouldn’t have listened to Joe. He lied to me!” Joe probably believed his own falsehoods, and because you chose to blindly listen to him, he swept you into his own self-deception. It’s not magicians or criminals we need to worry about when it comes to being deceived – we should be most on guard against ourselves. “Often we don’t want to know when somebody is lying,” explains University of Massachusetts psychology professor Robert Feldman. “In short, we are programmed to believe compliments and avoid painful truths, both of which make a liar’s task much easier.”

To avoid being victimized by a liar, I suggest two things: First, be a critical thinker. Consider if what they’re telling you makes sense. Does it all REALLY add up? Second, if it doesn’t make sense, then insist that the person clarify. People often don’t explain things as well as they think they did, but if they honestly want you to understand, they will happily explain further. If they get defensive, and what they say still doesn’t add up, then it’s likely they’re lying. Trust your intuition, heed the warnings and proceed with caution.

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